Marriage: Am I Doing It Right?
On James Salter, Ingmar Bergman, and Finding the Answers in Art
The marriage of Viri and Nedra Berland in James Salter’s Light Years is, by turns, idyllic and broken. Actually, it’s continuously broken but the idyll happens anyway, at intervals and usually over long meals with friends or in quiet family moments. Life is weather. Life is meals. My marriage is neither idyllic nor broken but there are cracks and there is joy. It is neither weather nor meals. It is arguments about money. It is worrying about work. It is silent anxiety, periodic depression. Naps. It is wine, whiskey, gin. It is quitting smoking next week. It is often reading on the sofa, perpendicular on the sectional. It often feels like a dependency but I have no interest in knowing the cure.
I have been married for eight months. I have a fear (it feels a little like going over the crest of a steep hill in a fast-moving car) that I’m not doing it right and neither is my husband. That we’re not doing it right either individually or together. That if we’re this bad at marriage now, then how on earth are we supposed to make it to 30 years? I can’t even imagine 30 years. I cannot imagine my husband and I as an old couple.
* * * *
James Salter has been dead for one year now. The heat here in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I met Salter at the University of Virginia, feels similar to how it felt on the day I learned of his death: close, tangible. I’m wearing shorts, which I hate to do as I loathe my legs, and I’m moving through the day slowly, as is necessary in this heat. I’m thinking about Salter and his wife, Kay Eldredge, and the warmth of their marriage as I witnessed it. I’m thinking about Viri and Nedra Berland. I am re-reading Light Years. I’m making a new study of its language, its textures and, for better or worse, the marriage at its core. I am making a study of my own marriage.
We were married in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a close and tangible day in October of last year. The temperature was still in the 80s, but all the leaves were turning orange. Everything matched my hair and his tie and my bouquet. Everything matched. I am smiling in all the photographs, of course. I look at the photographs now and I know that I was happy. I remember feeling, in all the passing moments, like the whole day was a photograph. I spoke to myself silently: be here. This is your wedding. Feel this. And I did feel it, I felt happy, but people talk about weddings wrong. That overwhelming joy, that electricity, that welling up of happy tears and pure emotion. I felt very good about it all, happy, but not that big swell that people talk about. I kept waiting to have the best day of my life. I got really drunk and so did my groom. I don’t know what any of that talk is about.
So much of the way marriage is portrayed publicly is, I have discovered, incorrect. There is so much posturing, very little of real substance. When I look at photos of married couples on Facebook or Instagram, I wonder: how do you speak to one another? Do you eat meals together? Do you keep a synchronized sleep schedule? What do your arguments consist of? As I become more deeply involved in my own marriage, so too am I more deeply fascinated with the marriages of others. Viri and Nedra’s. James and Kay’s. Couples on pages and on screen whom I feel as though I know.
* * * *
James Salter signed my copy of Light Years in the autumn of 2014, when he was the Kapnick Distinguished writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, where I got my MFA. I had introduced him at a public reading he was giving that night, in honor of Veterans’ Day. Of course we did not know it at the time, but that was to be his final public reading. He read a section from All That Is and signed books in the atrium of the college building afterwards. There was a long line. The auditorium had been intimidatingly full for the reading and my hands shook as I read the introduction I’d prepared. I waited in line with everyone else afterwards, my then boyfriend, not yet husband, by my side. When we arrived at the table where Salter was sitting, I sat opposite him, leaned in and said, “Jim, this is my boyfriend, Adam, he would like to meet you,” gesturing to the shy man standing next to my chair. He looked up at Adam, offered his hand and said, “Oh yes, you’re the one who’s always following her around.” We laughed. He signed my book, my beloved copy of Light Years, with the inscription “To Helen, from her admirer, James Salter, 11/11/14.” He was charming, witty, softly spoken and I was completely enthralled by him. Kay stood nearby, chatting to a faculty member and keeping half an eye on the proceedings.
In order not to further wear out my beloved signed copy, I went in search of a second copy of Light Years in Charlottesville’s many second-hand bookstores. I needed to read it again as a married person, to see if it would be different to me now. It was another hot day. I didn’t have a job. I still don’t, though I will go back to teaching fiction at UVA in the fall, for meager adjunct pay. My husband works at a bookstore. We are broke and we worry about money. This is perhaps why marriage sometimes feels difficult. Anyway, I wanted to read Light Years again. I had the idea that it might help me understand something. In my deepening obsession with the inner workings of marriage, there is a feeling, nebulous, that there must be something essential to understand.
There are four second-hand bookstores in walking distance of our house in Charlottesville and so I walked, slowly. My husband was happy that I was doing something, finally, that was not lying in bed whining about not being able to write. I do this often. We fight about it sometimes. I checked my favorite used bookstore first, the one whose basement feels about to cave in at any minute from the weight of all the books. It smells of damp and mold and is probably unsafe. There were no copies of Light Years. I asked why. “Nobody wants to give that book away now. Not since he died,” the owner told me. He’s an old man himself, wheelchair bound and generous in a way that acknowledges his business will die with him. He sometimes gives me free books.
The other bookstores yielded nothing either, including the one where my husband works. I stopped by to check for a copy and to lean against the counter and chat. I ended up buying a new copy of Light Years at the independent bookstore, the only place that sells new books downtown. It’s a Vintage International edition, the one you see in most new bookstores now, at least in the US. It cost $16, plus tax. I took it to a café and began reading. I gave myself a task: make a note of every line that seems uncanny about marriage.
“There are things I love about marriage. I love the familiarity of it, Nedra said. “It’s like a tattoo. You wanted it at the time, you have it, it’s implanted in your skin, you can’t get rid of it. You’re hardly even aware of it anymore.”
Nedra says this to her lover, Jivan, during sex. They talk and perform sexual acts with equal nonchalance. I don’t quite connect to Nedra’s likening of marriage to a tattoo. It’s true, what she says, of tattoos. You want them badly, like a sugar fix, you get them and then, after a period of admiring them in the mirror each morning they become as commonplace as any other part of your body. I both want and do not want my marriage to become that.
It is easy to say something like, “marriage is difficult” but it is not easy to explain what that means. It is difficult when you find yourself in situations you have read about, such as arguing over budgets instead of having sex. You have to laugh. It is difficult when you cannot find anything kind to say, and worse, you find yourself wanting, no, needing, to say something unkind instead. My husband and I are sometimes guilty of being unkind and of not paying enough attention, of forgetting one another. We have only been married for eight months. We have known one another for three and a half years. Sometimes we fight before bed, we sleep, wake up clinging to one another. He brings me tea and hot buttered toast.
Light Years, Salter said, is “the worn stones of a conjugal life.” Worn stones sound warm to me, smooth and comforting. I often take great comfort in the presence of my husband and he in mine. We are glad for each other. But I would not describe my marriage as smooth and comforting, at least not yet. It sometimes has sharp edges. I am hoping its sharp edges will be filed smooth, as if a nail with an emery board, in order so that we may live without snagging our wool, unraveling.
Light Years came out in 1975. Salter’s marriage to his wife Ann ended that same year. James and Ann’s neighbors, Barbara and Laurence Rosenthal, on whom much of Viri and Nedra’s marriage in Light Years is allegedly based, soon also separated, mirroring the Berlands’ fate. This seems like the right place in this piece to insert marriage failure rates, to really highlight the improbability of this venture, the true extent of our foolishness. Instead, I look at something else. I look to marriages in progress, good marriages I’ve seen. My parents’ for one. My Dad always parts from us with the advice, “be good to each other.” And that’s probably the only thing we need, the only words I should pore over. But, I obsess over the marriages of famous writers and artists. I look at fictional unions. I pore over the details of failed marriages between writers and cling to the stories that have happy endings.
* * * *
At dinner in Jim and Kay Salter’s temporary Charlottesville home, on the same street where Faulkner lived when he was UVA’s writer in residence in the 1950s, my classmates and I are tongue-tied. We say commonplace things, kick ourselves for not being more luminous and effervescent. It is November of 2014, it is dark outside, it is almost the holidays. Jim and Kay have been in Charlottesville since August and, they say, they will be sad to leave when the semester finishes. They have enjoyed their time. It strikes me that this would be true of anywhere, for them. They are warm, kind, interesting, interested in people and in sharing conversations and meals. They make meatloaf and we bring pie for dessert. We talk with Jim about books—he’s reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which he calls “astonishing.” He doesn’t know if he’ll finish it, though. “I don’t really have time to finish books these days,” he says. He often says things that acknowledge his old age, resigned truths, to which the only appropriate response is either a joke or nothing. He doesn’t want pity.
I realize now that I know nothing. I understand that a couple married 20 years, even ten, would listen to me speak about marriage as I am doing here and they would scoff. You think you know, they would say, but you have no idea, in much the same way I felt about 22-year-olds when I was 29. It is with this knowledge that I then ask: how do I do this? How do I make sure I don’t mess this up? I’m not really asking. I’m setting myself the task of discovering for myself.
These hot summer days in Virginia stretch and expand and everything melts. We cannot keep our butter the right consistency. Fruit ripens in an instant and then spoils. Fruit flies explode outwards from a touched surface, unexpectedly. We are both obsessed with keeping roaches and other bugs at bay. We bleach the bin every other day and wrap food scraps tightly. Any hint of a bad smell and every surface gets wiped. The heat makes everything rot and grow. I grow more obsessive in the summers, it is true. My husband is obsessive in all seasons. This summer, my obsession is with keeping roaches away but also with examining marriage, with finding marriages in literature and film and poring over them for uncanny similarities or reassuring differences. Everywhere a marriage is portrayed, my interest is piqued. I have begun with Light Years, and my obsession bleeds outward.
According to Wikipedia, divorce rates in Sweden skyrocketed after Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage first aired on television. The series, starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as the husband and wife Marianne and Johan, first aired on television in six parts and was later edited into a feature film for theatrical release in the US. The film is still long, at almost three hours, and incredibly intense. Bergman’s signature close-ups and long, almost uncomfortably long, shots of facial reactions lend the film its hyper-realness. I watch the film, through the Criterion Collection on Hulu, in a drastically hot apartment in Chicago, where I’ve come to spend a week working on my book. The apartment has no central air conditioning and it’s 90 degrees outside. I have the ceiling fan spinning so furiously it looks as though it will detach and slice me in two.
I cannot, it seems, get much work done at home, where my husband and I pace around one another and blame the slightest intrusion on our inability to get any words on the page. Friends of mine from home who live in Chicago and are on vacation have offered us their Oak Park apartment for two weeks and, as I figured he would, my husband says he can’t go. He has to work, he says, that constant anxiety about staying fixed to one spot in order to achieve anything seeping from his pores. I am the opposite. I need movement and activity in order to spur work. I also like to have solitude and room to allow my mind to wander, to focus entirely on myself. I suggest I go alone. We agree. This is something we are coming to accept as our relationship progresses: that to seek out occasional periods of solitude is not a mark of weakness but a harbinger of strength in our marriage. To be able to go away, reap the benefits and then return, happy to be reunited, acts as a hardening agent, a cement.
And so I am in Oak Park, where Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio is, where Hemingway was born, lying spread-eagle on an IKEA bed, watching Ingmar Bergman films and, still, feeding my obsession with the workings of marriage. In Summer with Monika, Bergman seems to make a villain of the young wife and mother, highlighting her selfish and lazy ways while we sympathize with the hard-working and long suffering young husband and father. Scenes from a Marriage takes a more holistic view. I speak to my husband on the phone before I settle in to watch it. I tell him about my afternoon, about the pasta I cooked for dinner, how I couldn’t stand near the stove while the pasta boiled because it made the heat in the apartment unbearable. Back home, my husband is at work at the bookstore. Here, I have been writing in the mornings and spend the rest of the days either walking around the city or watching movies. I tell my husband I’m worried about watching Scenes from a Marriage. “I always compare everything,” I tell him, though he knows this all too well. He doesn’t need reminding of the time we watched Richard Linklater’s trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight in a weekend and fought the entire time. Scenes from a Marriage is the original standard that Linklater’s movies acknowledge. My attitude in watching hyper-realistic relationships play out on screen is usually “what if that happens to us?” or “why don’t we do that?” It’s unhelpful, in the main. Now that I’m married though, I might be able to understand something in this film on a deeper level. I watch. The opening scene makes me cringe. The character of Johan is so bombastic and egotistical while the timid wife, Marianne, clutches his arm and speaks little. I relax. We are not like this.
As the film progresses, the two become less archetypal. I become more uncomfortable the more they talk, because of course some of the things they say strike a note of recognition in me. They talk often about what their relationship is like. They snuggle more often than they fuck. They are tired. They tell themselves they are not like other couples. This film gets deep into the center of a marriage. It’s almost too real, but I watch, all three hours. Johan continues to be an utterly selfish egomaniac, but I cry when he reveals his affair anyway, when I see Marianne’s desperation at his leaving. I am happy when they periodically return to each other because their new marriages aren’t working out. This, despite how obviously bad he is as a person, how I wouldn’t wish him as a husband on my worst enemy. I root for them because it’s love, inexplicable, and even more than that, it’s marriage, something you can only truly know from the inside. “We love each other in an earthly and imperfect way,” Johan says to Marianne in the film’s final scene. That seems right to me.
I had thought a week in Chicago would not be enough to really get anything done. But, I’ve written close to 10,000 words of my book, so I’m deeply satisfied, and I miss my husband.
* * * *
My book is about a marriage. It’s neither fiction nor non-fiction. I don’t want to have to say what it is. The narrator, the wife, is probably me but she says things I’ve never said and thinks things I’ve never truly thought. And so this obsessive project of mine is serving some slight purpose. I’m researching, you could say. I’m gathering material.
I can’t quite believe it but Chicago is getting hotter. It’s unpleasant to stay in the apartment but it’s unpleasant also to walk around. I choose the latter, reasoning that at least there are places with air conditioning out there. I walk, slowly, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s house and studio where I secure a last minute ticket for a tour of the house that’s about to begin. I am the only solo person on the tour. I stand awkwardly in the midst of five other couples. Throughout the tour, my mind wanders from what the guide is saying about light and “letting nature in” and I find myself examining the pairs around me. There is a sporty and tanned British couple who ask a lot of questions and who I can imagine telling of their visit at a dinner party. The way they talk is practiced. They’re performing for everyone around them and each other. There are two almost identical middle-aged Midwestern couples, plump, wearing sandals and baseball caps. I can’t distinguish them in my memory. There’s a young, very attractive couple who look to be college students. When we enter the studio space on the property, the space where Wright oversaw the work of his team of architects, the young man says quietly to his girlfriend, “imagine studio looked like this.” I think they are architecture students. They, like my husband and I, have the same profession. There’s a gay couple and their newborn son, who squawks periodically throughout the tour. I wonder how the woman he’s strapped to is staying conscious in the heat. They stick close together. I seek something in all of these ordinary couples but find little, except that they all seem content in some way. They have quietly enjoyed a cultural experience together, which they’ll tell each other was very good over lunch afterwards. I walk slowly back to the apartment, stopping for a gin and tonic in an air-conditioned bar on the way.
That evening, I watch Eric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon. Again, a marriage in precarious circumstances but this time from the perspective of the husband, Frederic, who insists that he is in love with his wife but harbors sexual fantasies about every woman he sees. His wife Helene is beautiful, patient and smart. Frederic is tempted to act on his fantasies when an old acquaintance, Chloe (played by the stunning actress, model and singer Zouzou), shows up at his office one day. The excitement of a new crush is palpable in Frederic and Chloe’s relationship. Chloe is dangerously impulsive, irresponsible and brazen. I think we’re supposed to feel as conflicted as Frederic does between his supposed love for his wife and his infatuation with Chloe. I feel only a deep anger towards both Frederic and Chloe and, though Frederic largely denies his desires (apart from some open-mouthed kissing and fondling of Chloe’s naked body) and flees home to his wife in the end, I can’t help but feel that theirs is a broken marriage. Frederic has broken it. He doesn’t tell Helene anything about his internal life, about the events of his day, nothing. He expresses regret for this. The couple talk in the final scene of the film about how it’s okay not to tell each other everything, that they love one another anyway and that maybe it’s better for their marriage not to be so open. Married couples will say anything to justify the position they find themselves in, in order not to admit defeat.
There’s perhaps too much openness in my marriage. We talk about everything. Perhaps it’s because I am incapable of leaving anything alone. I dig and dig until everything is exposed. But I think of the times when we’ve felt most connected, strongest against obstacles and those are the times we’ve talked openly and deeply about our relationship. If I had to choose, I’d choose our way every time.
I’m going home to Virginia tomorrow and my husband will pick me up at the airport. I’m excited to see him, an excitement I wouldn’t have felt had I not gone away.
I’m lying on the sectional next to the open living room windows, straining my face upwards towards the uncomfortably warm breeze. But it’s a breeze. It pushes into the house and makes everything damp with humidity. There are small insects all over the screens. The cicadas have not surfaced yet, but I trust that they are coming. It is a 17-year brood this year. Billions of cicadas, hatched underground in 1999, will emerge from the soil in order to mate. Their screeches and cries will feel like the end of the world. My husband and I will be unable to sleep for the noise, which eases at night but does not stop fully. From July to September it is constant. Loudest in the heat of the afternoons.
This summer, my obsession with marriage is proving fruitful and productive, in that it’s generating material for my book and, as a bonus, I’m watching a lot of fantastic films and reading excellent books. Last summer, a less productive obsession with cicadas plagued me, and I spent a lot of time reading about their life cycle and mating rituals. I’m still fascinated by cicadas, but the obsession has thankfully waned. I’m relieved and so is my husband. My summer obsessions only began when I moved with him to America and found my routine upended by the academic calendar each May. The change in schedule and the long, hot days stretching out for months mean I have to find somewhere to put my energy. Last summer it was cicadas. This summer it is marriage. It is more productive to be obsessed with marriage than cicadas. I am learning. It is not a coincidence that I am being kinder to my husband these summer days, less neurotically difficult to live with than usual.
The stories of difficult marriages are the ones I end up gravitating towards. The intensity of marriages in crisis is compelling to anyone, but especially to someone new to marriage. I continue in this pattern by picking up the NYRB edition of Alberto Moravia’s Contempt, which inspired Godard’s incredible film of the same name. The story is an uncomfortably familiar one: a man, a writer, takes a well-paying but dull job in order to support his wife, who then falls out of love with him. An aggressive obsession takes hold of Riccardo Molteni. He’s indignant about this wife’s change of heart from the outset: “This story sets out to relate how, while I continued to love her and not to judge her, Emilia, on the other hand, discovered, or thought she discovered, certain defects in me, and judged me and in consequence ceased to love me.” Molteni is another egomaniac, totally incapable of understanding how his wife might not adore him, but there is something in his obsessiveness that I understand. A marriage is an intimate space where you think you know everything. The drama occurs when it turns out you don’t. That’s what all these stories have in common.
* * * *
In a 2013 issue of Narrative Magazine, an interview appeared called “Salter on Salter: an interview, by James and Kay Salter.” The introduction to the piece was as follows:
James Salter has done all the interviews he’s prepared to do for the moment. As his wife, I probably know him as well as he knows himself, so I’m conducting an insider’s interview and taking the liberty, with his approval, of both asking and answering these questions.
My husband and I could not, at this point in our relationship, answer questions for one another. We would each think that we could, we’d approach the task with brazen confidence, but we would end up squabbling over answers. We’re still learning each other. My husband and I still talk over drinks and discover things about one another, like on early dates. Sometimes a question will come to me unbidden. “Did you sing in a choir at school?’ I’ll ask, out of nowhere, feeling that it’s important in that moment that I know the answer. “Have you ever been to a Catholic mass?” Things like that. These questions usually lead to pleasant nostalgic conversation. I’d like to continue this way for some time.
My husband is a writer. He speaks fluent Japanese and plays the violin. He is incredibly funny. He’s often timid and insecure. “Was that funny, what I said?” he’ll ask me when we come home from dinner with friends. “Was what funny?” I say. And he’ll recount the joke and I’ll laugh again and say “Yes, that was funny.” He will have been waiting the whole evening to get home and ask me that. My husband rarely smiles in photographs, which is a shame. He sometimes thinks he’s smiling when he’s not. On long drives, he likes for me to reach over from the passenger seat and scratch the back of his head and his neck while he drives. I can’t drive, so my husband drives us everywhere. We insist that we hate to drive, to be in the car, on principle, but we always end up having a nice time sitting next to one another and going somewhere. We listen to music, we sing, we listen to radio documentaries and books on tape. My husband sometimes looks at me and says “Hi wife” and I say, without even thinking about it, “Hi husband.”